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Now the situation is remarkably different. A cartoon from the October 1, 2012, issue of The New Yorker depicted a couple and a wedding planner with the following caption: “No, we’re not Jewish. But we think it would be fun for our reception’s theme to be ‘A Jewish wedding.’”
What’s changed over the course of the past century is that being Jewish is no longer viewed as a stigmatized condition. In other words, the “credit rating” of Jews as a group in American society has improved radically in comparison with its valuation half a century ago.
That positive shift is a result of the successful incorporation — assimilation! — of Jews (among other former stigmatized “Others”) who were once seen as beyond the pale but have now become part of the widened American mainstream. A formerly “bright boundary” separating Jews and gentiles blurred and became traversable (to use the language of sociologist Richard Alba).
Jewishness is now more widely distributed and much more positively viewed within the broader society than in the past. For instance, more than half of Americans (58%) reported personally knowing a Jewish person, according to the General Social Survey 2000. And nearly two-fifths of Americans say they would favor a close relative marrying a Jew. In 1905, intermarriage between a Jewish woman — “the flower of the ghetto” —and the scion of a prominent Protestant family was so unthinkable that it made the front page of The New York Times!
In this new environment, Jewishness in its many modes is no longer limited to traditional Jewish outlets. The Pew survey doesn’t tell us much about the expanding array of materials a person can use that relate to Jews, Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish concerns — the sheer number of books and films on Jewish subject matter, the opportunities for Jewish learning, even various cartoons that contain Jewish characters.
In addition, Jewish content is increasingly available in places that never provided it before: on university campuses, on TV, even in the form of the Pew study itself. The other national studies of Jews from 1970, 1990 and 2001 were funded and conducted by and for the Jewish community — and with the Pew study, the research operation has moved out of a cloistered Jewish-only setting and onto a broader stage.
All in all, the experience of Jews in America is a complex story. Summarizing this as a “grim portrait” misses a significant counter-narrative: the surprising persistence and durability of Jewishness in America.
Bethamie Horowitz is a research professor at New York University. She directed the 1991 New York Jewish Population Study.